What I’ve Been Reading – February 2007

The Handmaid's TaleWhat is the What

Books Acquired:
Jamestown – Matthew Sharpe
The Book of Dave – Will Self (checked out)
I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence – Amy Sedaris
Love You Forever – Robert N. Munsch
A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
The Plot Against America – Philip Roth (borrowed)

Books Read:
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Book of Dave – Will Self (not finished)
What is the What – David Eggers

Was it burnout? Was it performance anxiety? Was it the shortened month, mixed with the longest book, coupled with a three-day vacation and a failed ShoStoWriMo? Why did I only read two books? Sigh.

Of course, everyone will tell you that it’s not quantity, it’s quality. And in my case, I made sure the quality kept up its end of the bargain. I read two fantastic books – novels that dealt with deep subjects, filled with emotion, driven by authors who know how to craft words effectively. I didn’t waste my time this month, that’s for sure.

I nearly did. I have been enamored with reading some Will Self over the past few months – ever since reading his Pocket Penguins 70th Anniversary selection, Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo. I found him funny and well versed – one of those writers that uses lots of clever references and technical prowess, the kind of guy you know researches for months just to make sure his quips are anatomically correct.

So I picked up Will Self’s new novel, The Book of Dave, from the library. I thought the story idea was great – a man writes a book about his life, his ex-wife, his failed marriage – and it is found centuries later, where it is treated like a work of religion, a modern day Bible. The country is incredibly different, Mad Max-ian, almost. They treat Dave’s word like scripture, using his words, believing his visions – a real life messiah. A messiah who happened to be a taxi driver.

The problem is that, without reading the synopsis on the back or the numerous descriptions on the internet of the book, I’d never have known this. The scenes set in the future use a horribly difficult made-up language. The scenes from the past deal with one guy’s taxi driving. There’s no connection, aside from a few odd terms, and there’s no explanation. It was really frustrating.

What would have been more frustrating is giving it to someone as a Christmas gift knowing an explanation would be needed when that person found out how weirdly difficult it was. It’s like giving your Janet-Evanovich-reading friend a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and saying “I thought you’d like this, since it has words and all.” Thankfully, I instead gave Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and this person liked it so much he insisted I read it. Which is, secretly, one of the reasons I picked it out in the first place.

Aside from borrowed books and checked out books, I received a copy of Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown in the mail from Soft Skull Books. Soft Skull has been incredibly nice to me, seemingly mistaking me for someone with book reviewing clout ever since I gave Tennessee Jones’ Deliver Me From Nowhere a favorable review (and I continue to – it’s gotten better with age in my mind). They send me books periodically, and I’m thankful for it.

Matthew Sharpe’s last book, The Sleeping Father, was actually selected to be Today’s Book Club selection a few years ago, a surprising feat for such an independent book publisher. I haven’t ready anything from Sharpe, but I feel driven to do so this month. It’s next on my list, actually.

I’ve also made a weekly date to tackle The Best American Short Stories of the Century, a collection excitedly purchased last month. There are about 50 or so stories by the best short story writers ever, so I’m thinking one story a week will save me from overload. It should also allow me to truly appreciate each selection. I have a problem with plowing through a book of stories, only to lose the individual nature of each one. It’s a nasty habit. But I can’t help it – I love them.

Our trip to The Cities brought us to two bookstores – St. Paul’s Common Good Books (owned by the veritable Garrison Keillor) and Magers & Quinn in Uptown Minneapolis. We added to our slowly growing children’s book selection with Love You Forever – one of Kerrie’s favorite children’s books – and a recent Oprah Book Club selection, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Both were “Kerrie Selections,” meaning books that I think look interesting and will love having on the shelf, but will never be personally read. Kerrie will read them way before I ever get around to them. The same goes for I Like You, Amy Sedaris’ hilarious book on cooking and entertaining.

When I did actually get around to reading books, I found myself lost in someone else’s confusion. Both Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and David Eggers’ What is the What focused on the basics of displacement – of being uprooted from the solid foundation you had created and dropped into something unfamiliar – dangerous, scary, otherworldly. I spent a lot of time this month thinking about how I would feel in someone else’s place. And I was always left wondering if I would be as strong in that situation.

Atwood’s dystopian landscape was frightening in a way that I wasn’t used to. It was so real. The world had changed – in the span of a few years, a hidden group of neo-conservatives had created a sexless state. The women of the world were rewired, forced to become nothing more than wombs. All subjective thought was wiped out. And, sure the world was safer – rape was nonexistent, pornography was outlawed – but thought was contained and women were treated as objects even more than before. It was, maybe, the ultimate irony.

The emotionality of The Handmaid’s Tale is created in the mind of the protagonist, a woman who had been torn from spouse, child and independence, forced to become a Handmaid – a viable womb for a rich woman. It’s the thoughts that occupy her head – the realization that this isn’t how it used to be, that for years she had lived in relative happiness, the child of a strict feminist and independent spirit.

It’s these thoughts that drive the need for relief. Atwood’s world is not far removed from its original state – just a few years out from a time much like our own. But, because of a centralized control over information and a increasing lack of respect for independent thought, the world was easy shifted – from one of freedom to one of closed-thought and doublespeak. It’s Orwellian, to say the least. It’s brilliant, yet frightening.

The displacement that Atwood’s characters feel as they become more and more disconnected from their original lives, unable to remember the basics of their former beings, is paralleled in David Eggers’ novelization of a young Sudanese boy’s life – What is the What, the “biography” of Valentino Achak Deng.

What is the What, like The Handmaid’s Tale, illustrates the difficulty in being ripped from a settled life, forced into moving, leaving everything behind in an effort to save lives. In Deng’s case, this displacement is more physical. He’s driven from his home because of war, forced to run and join a group of traveling boys – The Lost Boys – on their way to Ethiopia and, supposedly, to freedom.

Deng’s story spans several African countries, from Sudan to Kenya, and chronicles the horrible history of war in Southern Sudan. This novel isn’t just about a boy on the run – it’s about a country under fire, a nation divided by an overbearing government and less-than-savory living conditions.

Through it all, Eggers uses Deng’s voice to show us his suffering and heroic nature. Deng didn’t go on the run to be a hero, but he exhibited all of the proper pieces. And while Eggers will sometimes drift into EggerStyle, he does it in a way that builds the story’s emotion and suspense, to the benefit of the voice, not the detriment.

Atwood’s story of displacement pulls from fears that are easily imagined, frightening enough to drive us to regret placing so much trust in unified systems and conservative thought. Eggers’ story is historical in its scope, pieced together as a boy grows to be a man at a young age, driven from country to country. His character is unable to fully understand what is happening in each case, seemingly lost as he translates the culture and discovers that no matter what, no matter where he turns, people will be cruel.

Atwood wrote a masterpiece. Eggers wrote a book that bucked his habit of meddling and tweaking a story just to be artistic, which allowing Deng’s voice to be true throughout.

Both books make me thankful of my position in life, of the fact that I will probably never have to feel a displacement so harsh and unreal, so confusing and frightening. The ability to voice such emotion is amazing. The ability to recover from it even more so.

This was lovingly handwritten on March 1st, 2007